National Museum of African Art Presents First Major Exhibition of African Earthen Arts

Will Be the First Time Land Art by African Artists Is Assembled Outside on the National Mall
March 21, 2013
News Release

Addthis Share Tools

“Earth Matters: Land as Material and Metaphor in the Arts of Africa” will open at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art on Earth Day, April 22, and continue through to Jan. 5, 2014. Curated by Karen E. Milbourne, “Earth Matters” is the first major exhibition exploring the ways in which African artists and communities mediate their relationship with the land upon which they live, work and frame their days.

The exhibition investigates the intersection between art and knowledge and brings together approximately 100 exceptional works of art from the turn of the 19th to 21st centuries. It is divided into five thematic sections: The Material Earth, Power of the Earth, Imagining the Underground, Strategies of the Surface and Art as Environmental Action. A sixth section, Earth Works, is the first installation of land art by three artists to be assembled outside in the Smithsonian Gardens and on the National Mall. A separate sculpture by Ledelle Moe (part of section two of the exhibition) will also be on display outside of the museum. These categories provide vantage points from which to examine the most poignant relationships that Africans have with the land, whether it be to earth as a sacred or medicinal material, as something uncovered by mining or claimed by burial, as a surface to be interpreted and turned to for inspiration, or as an environment to be protected.

“We, each of us, make choices every day that relate to the land beneath our feet,” said Milbourne. “Where we come from informs who we consider ourselves to be. What we throw out affects what this land of ours will be in the future. These issues are not African; they are global, but looking through the lens of Africa we can all better understand the human relationship to the landscape and its significance to the history of African art.”

The exhibition includes works by internationally recognized and emerging contemporary artists from the continent and diaspora who draw on the land for inspiration, including El Anatsui, Ghada Amer, Sammy Baloji, Wangechi Mutu, Allan deSouza, Ingrid Mwangi and William Kentridge.

Exhibition highlights include:

  • First installation of land art by African artists in the Smithsonian Enid A. Haupt Garden
  • One-of-a-kind Punu reliquary from Gabon
  • Zigua/Pare healing figure from Tanzania
  • First time the National Museum of African Art is reuniting its rare Yoruba onile figure with its mate from the Afrika Museum in Berg en Dal, Netherlands
  • Three legendary bocio figures by French collector Jacques Kerchache will be displayed alongside a painting by the Benin artist Tchif
  • More than 40 artists from 24 African nations

About the Curator

Milbourne has been a curator at the National Museum of African Art since May 2008. Her expertise includes the arts and pageantry of western Zambia and contemporary African art. Since joining the museum, she has curated the exhibitions “Artists in Dialogue: António Ole and Aimé Mpane” (2009) and “Artists in Dialogue 2: Sandile Zulu and Henrique Oliveira” (2011). She also served as coordinating curator for the exhibitions “Yinka Shonibare MBE” (2010) and “Central Nigeria Unmasked” (2011).


A fully illustrated publication accompanying the exhibition will be available in 2013 in the museum store. Written by Milbourne, the volume will include artist’s statements by Clive Van den Berg, Wangechi Mutu, Alan deSouza and George Osodi.

Educational Programs

Interactive educational programs and events will accompany the exhibition. They are designed to help visitors learn about African contributions to the land and the environment. On Aug. 3, the museum will host its annual community day with an “Earth Matters” theme. As part of its outreach activities, the museum has partnered to create cross-cultural, interdisciplinary educational programs with other organizations, including: the Environmental Film Festival in the Nation’s Capital, the U.S. Botanic Gardens, the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center and Casey Trees.


Sponsorship for “Earth Matters: Land as Material and Metaphor in the Arts of Africa” is provided by the Gabonese Republic. Additional support received from the Smithsonian’s Consortia for Valuing World Cultures and for Understanding the American Experience, Paul Neely and Georgia-Pacific.

About the National Museum of African Art

The National Museum of African Art is the nation’s premier museum dedicated exclusively to the collection, conservation, study and exhibition of Africa’s traditional and contemporary arts. The museum is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. (closed Dec. 25). Admission is free. The museum is located at 950 Independence Ave. S.W., near the Smithsonian Metrorail station on the Blue and Orange lines. For more information, call (202) 633-4600 or visit the National Museum of African Art’s website. For general Smithsonian information, call (202) 633-1000.

Note to Editors: Photos from “Earth Matters: Land as Material and Metaphor in the Arts of Africa” may be downloaded by visiting the museum’s media website at and clicking on “press room.” To arrange an interview with the artist or curator contact Eddie Burke at (202) 633-4660 or

# # #